Shots at the Sky – Translation
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[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Hello, Ambulantes. Before we start I want to remind you about our new podcast: El hilo. It’s a little different from Radio Ambulante, each Friday we review an important news story from Latin America and tell the story behind the news. And, of course, these days that subject is coronavirus. Last Friday’s episode, for example, we reported from Guayaquil, Ecuador, one of the most impacted cities in the region. Don’t miss it.
Plus, I want to remind you that every Friday for the next five weeks we’re going to put El hilo episodes on this feed. That is, Radio Ambulante on Tuesdays, and an extra El hilo episode on Fridays. The idea is to serve you better during this complex period. More information at elhilo.audio. OK, here’s the episode.
Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
[Daniel]: What you’re listening to was recorded in San Lorenzo Almecatla — a small town in the center of Mexico — and it appeared in a regional media outlet in 2018. The people of San Lorenzo started hearing that sound in May of that same year.
[Daniel]: And had no idea what it was. Nazario Cuautencos, who lives in San Lorenzo, explains it like this.
[Nazario Cuautencos]: I thought it was cuetes from nearby towns, right?
[Daniel]: Cuetes, meaning fireworks. In Mexico, like in many parts of Latin America, they’re common on certain holidays, like the celebration of a patron saint. But these explosions were much, much louder.
[Nazario]: It was like the… the ground was moving. It went: Boom!
[Daniel]: So the fireworks explanation was unlikely.
San Lorenzo is a small community on the skirts of the city of Puebla. You take the highway that gets you to the Northwest exit of the city, you pass a couple of industrial parks, and in a few minutes you’re a in a more rural area: green plains, with a lot of sun, criss-crossed by highways that connect the many small towns in the region.
Nazario, like many other residents of San Lorenzo, is a farmer.
[Nazario]: Most of us farm, uhm, corn and zucchini, just that. And broad beans.
[Daniel]: And it was from the land he was on the outskirts of town, where his house is too, that Nazario started hearing those explosions. And something that caught his attention, was how long they lasted.
[Nazario]: Sometimes it would be two or three hours because they would throw them… and then it would be like every five minutes. They would throw one and another, and another, and another.
[Daniel]: But they started to realize that there seemed to be a pattern.
[Nazario]: The clouds were really, really black, like it was about to rain, and they would start firing: Boom! Boom! And when we looked out, the clouds were starting to leave. And when we looked… It hadn’t rained. They’re gone… The clouds are gone.
[Daniel]: Meaning, that the sounds would start when it looked like it was going to rain. And that’s because it was just in the months when the rain season started that those explosions began to be heard. It’s a very important time for farmers like Nazario, who practice seasonal agriculture, which depends on rain for the crops to grow.
Estela Ramírez lives in San Francisco Ocotlán, a town very close to San Lorenzo, and she also started to notice around the same time the connection between the explosions and the rain.
[Estela Ramírez]: Because the water, uh, was coming. We would even collect the clothes that were drying or gather, uh, our chickens and everything, because it was about to rain.
[Daniel]: And the same thing. If there were clouds, the explosions would go off. In addition to the connection with the rain, Estela one day saw another equally worrying thing.
[Estela]: We have about twelve trees and, in the morning, we found them there laying on the ground, the dead birds: six, eight. Once we counted up to sixteen.
[Daniel]: When they discovered what was making that noise, Nazario and many of his other neighbors were outraged, and the news reached national and international media outlets. What was causing those explosions?
Our editor, Victoria Estrada, tells the story.
[Victoria Estrada]: The area where San Lorenzo and Ocotlán are located, Northwest of the city of Puebla, is very known for another thing: it has one of the biggest Volkswagen assembly plants outside of Europe. It’s an area of more than 700 acres, and the plant is very close to where people like Nazario live.
[Nazario]: You can see here I’m very close to Volkswagen. I’m right behind Volkswagen.
[Victoria]: The plant was built over 50 years ago.
[Nazario]: Before, when I, uh, arrived in this area there was only Volkswagen and me. There wasn’t anything else. Houses around here, there were only three.
[Victoria]: Now you can see an industrial park and a highway that connects to the city. The same thing as in many other places has happened: cities grow and start to swallow the areas that used to be rural.
Soon rumors started to spread which explained where the explosions were coming from. This is Gerardo Pérez. He’s a civil engineer and he lives in Ocotlán.
[Gerardo Pérez]: They told me: “Hey, Gerardo, Volkswagen is setting off fireworks so it won’t rain.” That’s what they told me.
[Victoria]: The information that the explosions seemed to be coming from the Volkswagen plant started spreading through word of mouth and in group chats. And with those rumors something else came: that it wasn’t fireworks or bombs what they were firing, but rather something called “anti-hail cannons.”
[Gerardo]: I didn’t know anything about anti-hail cannons. I mean, I didn’t know anything about the subject. So, we started to do some research.
[Nazario]: Thank God, well, we have the internet and, well, sometimes we… we… we have to go online to, well, to inform ourselves, right?
[Victoria]: There wasn’t much information, but basically they found out that those cannons had already caused conflicts in other places where they had been used, since it was said that they stopped hail and rain from falling. The people who lived near Volkswagen didn’t know why the company would want to stop hail from falling, much less why they would want it to stop raining, which is what seemed to be happening.
And even though they’re called “cannons,” they’re not what you would imagine: those black war cannons that might appear in a movie or series set in the 18th century. What they could see from afar were structures that looked more like a 20-feet tall metallic horn that pointed towards the sky.
The lack of rain stretched for several weeks, and that was affecting their crops, but nobody from the company had made any statements. So, several neighbors got together and decided to speak with local authorities to discuss the use of the cannons. They formed a commission, gathered the information that they had found online, and presented it to the auxiliary municipal president and representatives of the National Water Commission. But they were stalling and ignoring, and didn’t give them any answers.
[Nazario]: So, uh, well, we… we were outraged. It.. you know, because of what Volkswagen was doing and we had to take matters into our own hands, because the authorities were looking the other way and wouldn’t do anything for us to… to have justice.
[Victoria]: So the neighbors decided to do something so the company and the authorities would pay attention.
[Journalist]: Residents who live near the industrial park FINSA closed the road to San Lorenzo Almecatla. They’re against the use of the anti-hail cannons that were bought and are being used by the Volkswagen company. They argue that their use has stopped the rain in the area, a situation that is harming their crops.
[Victoria]: On June 1st, 2018, a group of about 200 neighbors blocked the highway and one of the entrances to the Volkswagen plant. They formed a barrier to block the passage of the vehicles and carried signs that said “For the Water” and “No Hail-Cannons.”
The neighbors declared to the media what they wanted.
[Woman]: Our requests are that they remove the anti-hail cannons permanently and that if they use them again, we’re going to close it again; that they make a pay… a payment for lost crops in general.
[Victoria]: That day the blockade of the highway and the Volkswagen plant entrance lasted five hours. A company representative came out to present a statement where they admitted that they were using those “anti-hail cannons,” but asked that a negotiating table be set up between the neighbors, the authorities, and Volkswagen, so they could explain how the cannons worked.
This is Nazario again.
[Nazario]: Yeah, they were telling us that… that the anti… the anti-hail cannons didn’t harm the farmer, that it was, uh, just our superstitions and that no… That we were ignorant of what were the… the effects that… that they produced.
[Victoria]: And plus they were saying that they had the necessary permits to use the cannons. So they weren’t going to stop shooting them.
Let’s pause here to explain how these cannons work. It’s a complicated subject, so let’s go step-by-step. The cannons that Volkswagen was using had been purchased from a Spanish company called Anti-Hail Protection Society, or SPAG for its initials in Spanish.
This is David Ollivier, the CEO of SPAG, describing for a TV channel how, according to them, the cannons work.
[David Ollivier]: What we do is an injection of acetylene gas inside this combustion chamber we create a spark, that spark generates an… an explosion and that explosion pro… produces an expansive wave which is what… what expands towards… towards the atmosphere.
[Victoria]: According to SPAG, the explosion produces shock waves, meaning, waves that go faster than the speed of local sound. On their website, they have a promotional video where they supposedly explain how it all works. It’s all just drawings, really
You see that from a cannon they shoot a white wave that expands to create a sort of dome. In the animation you can see how, just as some snowflakes — which symbolize the hail — cross the edge of the dome, they transform into raindrops.
The important thing is that, according to this explanation, the waves don’t affect rainfall.
SPAG has been in business for 40 years and they say that they’ve sold these cannons in over 30 countries, among them Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, and now Mexico. Most of their clients are farmers who have crops that are vulnerable to hail, like pears or peaches. But, of course, Volkswagen wasn’t growing fruits, but rather assembling cars that are left outdoors and can also be damaged by hail.
Neither Volkswagen nor SPAG have revealed the price of the cannons that were installed in the plant, but it has been reported that they could have cost upwards of one million Mexican Pesos — about 64,000 USD at the exchange rate of the time. That’s a lot less than the cost of other alternatives, such as hail insurance or anti-hail nets. For example, in order to install a net, it was reported that Volkswagen would’ve needed to pay a license to the local government of over four million Mexican Pesos — more than 200,000 USD then — and to that add the cost of the net and its installation.
Compared to that, the cannons were a steal.
That first protest didn’t have much echo. The farmers reported that Volkswagen continued to use the cannons during the months of June and July of 2018. But the farmers of other neighboring towns — such as Canoa, San Miguel Espejo, Xonacatepec, Aparicio, Acajete, Tepatlaxco, and Junta Auxiliar de la Resurrección — joined the residents of San Lorenzo and Ocotlán in their protests.
At a press conference in early August, the farmers announced that according to their estimations almost 5,000 acres of corn had already been lost, and they stated that it had affected about 100,000 people in the region.
In response, the state secretary of Rural Development, Sustainability, and Land Management announced that the National Water Commission had ruled out that the cannons had any negative effects, but still, the government of Puebla had asked Volkswagen to stop using the cannons until it was determined whether they actually had anything to do with the lack of rain in the area.
In other words, they needed to at least investigate the complaints of the farmers.
But the canons kept blaring.
So, on August 8th they took the highway again. This time, the protest lasted an hour and it ended just as before: with an agreement to start a negotiating table between the company, the authorities, and the farmers.
Even though the farmers’ protests didn’t seem to amount to much, the media increasingly paid more attention to what was happening in Puebla, and suddenly, from being just local news, it started appearing in national media.
To try to explain the effects the cannons had, the media turned to researchers and academics. In one news program, there was a segment where they interviewed Jesús Gómez, who has a PhD in Edaphology — in other words, he studies soil — and specializes in climate change. He was very emphatic in how damaging the waves of the canons were.
[Jesús Gómez]: There’s a very high collateral damage, it radically changes the whole condition, especially the balance of moisture, because it decreases very considerably the precipitation.
But not all the researchers that the media was interviewing seemed to be on the same page. While Gómez was saying that the cannons decreased rain, in another news program, Belinka González, who has a PhD in Physics, said something else.
[Belinka González]: What they do is that they make it rain, not not rain. There aren’t any methods that can stop rain. What you do is that you make it rain in another region at another time. And you can prevent the water from freezing and falling as hail, by making it fall earlier.
[Victoria]: But it wasn’t clear that that was what was happening either, since it hadn’t rained in the area. The whole thing was very confusing.
In response to the attention that the news was attracting, on August 13th, 2018, Volkswagen representatives held a press conference to explain how those cannons worked and why they kept using them.
There were three Volkswagen executives at the conference. The first to speak was Sara Marengo, technical assistant to the Office of the Presidency of Volkswagen Mexico, who wanted to make something very clear.
[Sara Marengo]: The explicit purpose of Volkswagen Mexico is the protection of the environment: water, soil, air, and the resources in all their production processes, as well as good neighbor relations.
[Victoria]: Then, Julio Marín, director of Environmental Management, Sustainability and Management Systems for Volkswagen, explained that they had installed the cannons because 2017 had been a year with specially strong hail storms that had damaged the new cars that were assembled and kept in their lots. That had caused them losses of 20 million dollars. So, they had purchased three cannons, although for them they had a more complex name: “anti-hail sonic devices.”
[Julio Marín]: These sonic devices were selected after our engineering departments looked for alternatives for… for what to do and how to stop these damages that were occurring in the crops of our fellow farmers, as well as in our finished cars.
[Victoria]: Regarding the farmers’ concerns, they only said that they were doing the environmental impact studies that the government had asked. But they insisted that they had consulted other studies and experts who had told them that the cannons don’t affect the rain, and consequently shouldn’t affect the farmers.
The conference lasted a little over 20 minutes. It ended with the comments of Carlos Luna, vice-president of Volkswagen Corporate Relations, who clarified that, be that as it may, having and using those cannons was legal.
[Carlos Luna]: We have all the permits and authorizations necessary which have been granted by the Secretariats of Environment, and therefore they are under use, uh, regulated by the government.
[Victoria]: I repeatedly tried to contact Julio Marín and other Volkswagen representatives, but they never answered.
Gerardo Pérez and Estela Ramírez, who live in Ocotlán and whom we have heard of before, participated in the negotiating tables that had been proposed by Volkswagen since the first protest to try to reach an agreement on the use of the cannons. But, according to them, those meetings weren’t really dialogues: the Volkswagen representatives just showed them one document after another to try to convince them.
[Gerardo]: They showed us a technical sheet and I even told them: “Well, if it’s a technical sheet that is coming from the maker of course it’s going to say that it doesn’t affect anything, right?”
[Victoria]: In other words, it wasn’t an impartial third-party report and therefore its validity was very questionable.
When I interviewed Gerardo, he showed me part of the file that they had given them,
And, uh, these papers, what… what are they? What you brought?
[Gerardo]: Well, yes, something from… from here, from… for example, look, here we… I downloaded some… the limits of Cuautlancingo.
[Victoria]: And among all those papers there was a key document. It was the clear evidence that it wasn’t true that they were complying with the conditions of the permit approved by the government.
[Gerardo]: This is the file we have, right? It says: “The anti-hail devices will operate less than two hours per year and they will have an anti-sound system that significantly reduces the noise level.” I mean, here it clearly says that they must operate less than two hours per year and… and in one… and in just one day — they gave us the file themselves — it was almost… Here, look, from the 23rd, 24th, 25th… of April till May it was just eleven hours.
[Victoria]: Meaning that they themselves had kept a record of how many times and for how long they had been turned on. And it was a lot of hours, many more than the two that the permit authorized.
It also said that Volkswagen needed to procure the necessary authorizations at the local, state, and federal level. And that was another item that the neighbors were sure that they hadn’t complied with.
[Gerardo]: Because we as a native community, so… so this type of projects can be carried out, they must consult with the native community.
[Victoria]: And this is important because, according to the international treaties that Mexico has ratified, native communities have the right to be consulted prior to any situation that may affect their interests. And of course, the installation of machinery that could affect the fall of hail in the area falls within these interests.
[Gerardo]: And on the basis of that consultation, the people decide, which they didn’t do. I mean, there were a lot of anomalies in the… in the file.
[Victoria]: Despite all these anomalies, the neighbors never felt like they had the backing of the authorities in their protests. According to Estela, these negotiating tables weren’t very productive from the start.
[Estela]: For us… How could I explain? Well, they practically ignored us. Yes, because that’s how it was. Really that they… They didn’t listen to our requests, our feelings as a people. There was never any of that.
[Daniel]: Up until that moment two things were clear: Volkswagen wasn’t going to stop shooting the cannons to dissolve hail and the neighbors weren’t going to stop protesting so that the rain would come back. That attracted the attention of a lot of people in the country, but especially of some meteorologists who started to say something that contradicted the company as well as the farmers: that the anti-hail cannons didn’t do anything at all.
We’ll be back after the break.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break we heard about the problems that the residents of San Lorenzo Almecatla, Ocotlán, and other towns that neighbor the Volkswagen in Puebla had. In the spring of 2018, the Volkswagen plant started using cannons to stop the hail that was damaging the cars in their lots.
The neighbors said that the cannons were stopping the rain, but the company assured them that it only affected hail and, plus, they had the permits to use them. But the only certain thing was that it wasn’t raining, which was what usually happened during that time of the year. That was affecting their crops, so they had started to protest to demand that Volkswagen stop using the cannons.
But to that conflict, the voice of scientists like Graciela Raga was added. Their argument was simple.
[Graciela Raga]: What I can say is that there aren’t really any studies which have documented that any of these methods have a proven efficacy. Least of all the cannons that are on the surface. It’s totally not effective. That is done. I mean, there’s no way.
[Daniel]: Meaning, that those cannons weren’t really doing what any of the sides were arguing.
Victoria Estrada continues the story.
[Victoria]: The idea of shooting at the sky to try to avoid rainfall or hail is very old. It started over 500 years ago, with those war cannons that we’ve all seen. In that time, they shot cannon balls — made of metal and very heavy — towards the clouds. Benvenuto Cellini, an Italian sculptor of the Renaissance era, reported in his autobiography in 1554 that he had managed to destroy a storm by shooting cannonballs at it.
Since then there have been variations. For example, at the end of the 19th century, a patent was granted to a general in the US who had developed a process to make it rain more: the invention consisted of detonating explosives that were carried to the clouds atop balloons.
According to the company that sells the cannon that Volkswagen was using was designed in the ‘70s and, as we said, it doesn’t shoot cannonballs, but rather a sonic wave. But, in essence, the idea is very similar to how it started: shoot at the sky to try and change the weather.
In order to understand how this could work I talked to Graciela Raga, whom you heard earlier. She is a meteorologist and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Center for Atmospheric Sciences. She completed a PhD in Atmospheric Sciences in the US, and has worked in several research centers, including in England and Canada.
[Graciela]: Doing measurement of, uh, cloud characteristics inside clouds, with planes that have very sophisticated instruments.
[Victoria]: To measure different things: water contents, the size of raindrops, or cloud turbulence, for example. All those measurements…
[Graciela]: Allow for a bet… greater… or a better characterization of conditions inside the cloud.
[Victoria]: All of this sounded strange to me and, really, I don’t know a lot about clouds. So, I asked Raga to explain this whole subject to me from zero, as if I was an eight-year-old child, because by this point I was very confused with everything I had read about the cannons.
So, let’s take it step-by-step.
[Graciela]: Cloud formation is pretty… is something pretty common on… on our planet and it mainly depends on two things: the availability of water.
[Victoria]: Meaning, humidity in the atmosphere is needed. And the second thing:
[Graciela]: Water vapor needs to condense over an existing particle.
[Victoria]: She told me that water doesn’t condense, that is, it doesn’t go from a gaseous form to a liquid state, in nothing. It needs tiny particles like dust, sea salts, or plant spores.
Once there is water vapor and particles, it is also necessary that the particles rise to a height where the temperature is lower.
[Graciela]: And when the humidity is one hundred percent, the water vapor condenses on these particles and, so, that forms the first little clouds that… that we see.
[Victoria]: This process has to last long enough so that the clouds grow and grow and grow. If that doesn’t happen, well, that’s it, but if it does, what follows is the rain and hail formation.
She told me that in essence they are similar processes. What mainly changes is that, for there to be hail, ice crystals need to be formed and that only happens in a type of cloud that’s called cumulonimbus, which are very big and very tall vertical clouds. And that’s important, because the temperature needs to be very, very low, low enough so that the liquids freeze and become ice crystals.
Whether they are drops or crystals, what follows…
[Graciela]: Are the crashes between drops and crystals, which produce the growth of these… these hydrometeors.
[Victoria]: Don’t be scared, hydrometeors is another way of calling rain or hail particles. The point is that they are crashing inside the cloud and that makes them bigger. Inside the cloud there is chaos and it’s almost impossible to know from the outside at what point it is. When they can no longer remain suspended in the air because of their weight, they fall to the earth, as rain or hail.
After all that explaining I understood that, for meteorologists, the process is pretty straightforward. But then, I had a question which I posed to Raga: Why is it so hard to know with 100 percent certainty when it is going to rain or not? Because, OK, we see on TV the weather report and the chance of rain every day, or even the chance of hail, but even the most exact reports in the world only reach an 90 percent certainty, it’s never 100.
And she responded that even though we have a very precise knowledge of what happens inside clouds, we can’t reproduce what happens in there with a computer at the micro scale necessary. The problem is that there are no computers powerful enough to simulate how each droplet moves inside the cloud. It’s incredibly complex. So, the most you can do is give that probability that it will rain or not. But it’s never a certainty.
So, let us recap a little. We’ve explained how clouds, rain, and hail form. There’s no question about that for meteorologists. What is questioned is the ability to modify these conditions artificially.
And yes, controlling the weather is one of humankind’s ambitions. It’s being pursued right now, and not just with the Volkswagen cannons. Raga told me about another method: “cloud seeding,” a process in which rockets that liberate particles of silver iodide into the clouds are fired — from the ground or from planes. The idea is to load the clouds with those particles and accelerate the rain formation process. That would make it so that it rains earlier and hail doesn’t form.
In fact, during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in China, it was reported that the government used this method so that it wouldn’t rain during the event. The opening ceremony was dry.
But, even though it has been proven that silver iodide works to condensate water vapor inside the lab, that it would work with clouds is a whole different story.
[Graciela]: Because you have to seed at a specific moment. Now, how do I seed at that particular instant if I have to ask for permission to fly the plane? So, really, it’s very difficult that… from an experimental point of view, to do that seeding and have it be effective.
[Victoria]: It’s very complicated to prove whether cloud seeding has a real effect or if the fact is that there wasn’t going to be any hail formation, and it was going to rain earlier anyway. There’s never a certainty.
So, the proof of whether seeding works or not, is just anecdotal. There aren’t any hard facts that could be considered evidence, to give scientific validity to these methods.
But Raga was clear on saying that cloud seeding is one thing and anti-hail cannons are another. Cannons don’t release any particles into the clouds, they just burn acetylene and produce a sonic wave.
And that’s important, because one of the criticisms of cloud seeding is that the silver iodide particles that are released are toxic for living creatures. The people who support the use of seeding argue that the amount of particles released into the environment isn’t enough to cause any harm, so there’s no problem.
Still, its use is controversial. In an article about the use of cannons which was published in Armenia, the cannons were proposed as an environmental alternative to cloud seeding, since they don’t use silver iodide.
The problem, of course, is that the explanation given by the manufacturers about how those cannons work doesn’t seem to have any scientific basis. What they say is that…
[Graciela]: The physics principle is that the… the air contained in the hail seeds is going to vibrate with the sound and that is going to break the hail.
[Victoria]: What Ollivier said in that video we heard before.
But it’s not so simple to say that something works because there is a “physics principle.” It needs to be proven, at least on paper, with formulas and a theory. And then, to be tested to reach a conclusion.
[Graciela]: I know and I knew — several have died — many of the most important physicists who have worked inside the lab with hail studies, and that isn’t proven.
[Victoria]: And yes, they did try to prove it. They tried to break ice crystals in the lab with sound — imitating what the cannons do — and it didn’t work, at least not at the levels necessary to affect a hail storm. According to Raga, it doesn’t make sense to think that the sonic explosion of the cannon is going to disintegrate the hail as it falls, if the shock waves produced by thunder during a storm — which are louder and closer to the clouds — don’t affect hail.
[Graciela]: So really the effectiveness of that technology is zero.
[Victoria]: The position of the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization on weather modification technologies — such as anti-hail cannons or cloud seeding — is that they, and I quote, “do not have a sound scientific basis and should be treated with suspicion.”
And when discussing the possible environmental consequences they may have, they just say that they, quote, “have not been demonstrated, but cannot be ruled out.”
[Graciela]: Certainly there should be greater regulation, and that’s the role of the State, right? Regulating that there not be totally false propaganda and that people don’t buy it. But… but, well, there isn’t much regulation in that sense in Mexico.
[Victoria]: Nor in other countries.
Although government intervention seems to be becoming increasingly necessary: the conflict between Volkswagen and the neighboring farmers is not the first one in Mexico because of anti-hail cannons.
In Jalisco, another state in central Mexico, there have been problems with their use for ten years. But there, it wasn’t a car assembly plant that started using the cannons, but other farmers. They were using them to protect their avocado, strawberry, blueberry, blackberry and tomato crops, which are types of crops that are very affected by hail. And they are also crops that don’t need seasonal rain, because they use irrigation. So, if it stopped raining, it wouldn’t affect them.
In Jalisco, the same thing happened as in Puebla: farmers who weren’t using the cannons and who had crops like corn — which needs the rain — began to investigate. One of the people they spoke to was a professor and researcher at the University of Guadalajara, Ricardo García de Alba.
[Ricardo García de Alba]: I was skeptical about this technology. However, uh, many rural producers in southern Jalisco began to have concerns that a number of devices were being used to keep the rain away.
[Victoria]: The affected farmers in Jalisco also went to the authorities to denounce their use.
[Ricardo García de Alba]: However, local, state and federal authorities were skeptical of situations where a pro… a technology such as the anti-hail cannon could inhibit rain in particular.
[Victoria]: Which is the same position of the World Meteorological Organization and most scientists.
But what is striking is that this skepticism and uncertainty were not sufficient reasons to prohibit the use of the cannons, but rather the excuse for not regulating them and letting them be used without first doing the studies to assess the impacts they can have on the environment.
For Garcia de Alba, the issue is that the use of cannons is becoming a social problem.
[Ricardo García de Alba]: Everywhere in the world where cannons are used: Argentina, Chile, Spain, France, in the north of the country, in the center of the country. Wherever the cannons are being used, the social demand is exactly the same.
[Victoria]: That they be regulated or that their use be prohibited. But the manufacturers hide behind the scientific consensus: that the cannons don’t affect the rain, although they conveniently omit that the same scientific consensus says that they are not affecting hail either, and that it hasn’t been proven that the cannons can change the weather.
García de Alba had also initially doubted that the cannons would have any effect, since it goes against everything he knew about the processes of cloud and rain formation, but at the insistence of the farmers, who told him about their daily experiences, that skepticism turned into curiosity. So now, he sees the role scientists must play in this conflict clearly.
[Ricardo García de Alba]: Research has to solve social problems, and if this is a problem it has to be answered. And we must explain and tell society what is or isn’t what they are imagining.
[Victoria]: In other words, they must propose serious scientific research, with real evidence to solve a social problem that clearly exists.
Because even if they do not affect the rain or hail, it is not clear either what effects the cannons are causing. And figuring this out is complicated, because Garcia de Alba says he doesn’t have all the data he needs to know how the cannons work.
[Ricardo García de Alba]: It is information that has to do with copyright, which has to do with intellectual property and industrial property.
[Victoria]: Since, as we saw at the beginning, the explanations found in the videos or the manufacturers’ websites are very simple and vague. They don’t have all the data that allows them to prove or refute their effectiveness.
Garcia de Alba would like to be able to do experiments.
[Ricardo García de Alba]: If we want to know exactly what happens with a cannon, we must first have a cannon for research purposes and create the same activation protocol.
[Victoria]: That is, use it just like the farmers of Jalisco or Volkswagen.
[Ricardo García de Alba]: Activate the cannon system when a cumulonimbus is present.
[Victoria]: The clouds that produce hail.
[Ricardo García de Alba]: And it has to be generated, to launch probe balloons that allow to register the changes of temperature, pressure, relative humidity, right?, that the column of… of the cannon could be producing.
[Victoria]: According to Garcia de Alba this would help prove if what the people who sell the cannons are saying is true, and if it isn’t:
[Ricardo García de Alba]: Well, then it is simple: let’s not use this technology, let’s not deceive the fruit growers themselves. Because the cannon is not chea… it is not cheap, in addition to all the costs involved in its operation and all that is involved in its maintenance.
[Victoria]: Garcia de Alba explained that it has been those same costs that have prevented the experiments from being carried out, since until now they have not been able to obtain financing even to buy a cannon. But, even if those experiments were done, there are other scientists who think that getting a definitive answer about their impact over time would be very difficult, since there may be thousands of other variables that affect the observations. Because that’s how the weather is.
The occasional use of cannons has been documented in countries like the United States and Germany, but even so, serious studies on the effects they are having today cannot really be found. The studies Raga mentioned earlier — where it was determined that there was no evidence that they were affecting rain or hail — were conducted in the 1980s and, since then, the issue seems to have remained there, even though the cannons are still being sold and used. In fact, in recent years, the Indian government began financing the purchase of guns to create a regional hail protection system to protect apple crops.
Even if they do not stop hail or rain, what is certain is that in order to make explosions every seven seconds, for hours — as the residents of San Lorenzo heard — fuels are being burned and that, we all know, contaminates. And the environmental studies haven’t been carried to know what impact that thundering noise may be having on nearby birds, insects, or plants. In addition to how uncomfortable and harmful it could be for people.
[Nazario]: In my case, I expected an average of seven tons of corn, which is not a lot what I produce, but in the end I only picked up two tons.
[Victoria]: This is Nazario, whom we heard of at the beginning of this story. In the 2018 harvest season, the lack of rain caused him a significant loss.
[Nazario]: Yes, we were very affected. The corn didn’t grow, uh, because they kept firing them, and well, the corn did not grow anymore. It wasn’t… it wasn’t the same.
[Victoria]: Authorities told the media that the heat wave — that is, the hot season of the year — had been the most severe in almost 80 years and that this had caused a drought in several parts of the state.
The farmers of San Lorenzo, Ocotlán and other nearby towns did not reach any formal agreement with the company. The negotiating tables simply stopped happening and, at the end of August, Volkswagen announced that it would stop using the cannons automatically — now they would only use them manually — and that it was going to put up anti-hail nets to solve the problem they had with the cars that were affected by hail.
According to Nazario, this happened because Volkswagen didn’t want any more problems.
[Nazario]: Because if they kept using them it was… it was going to become a social conflict here in the state.
[Victoria]: What do you mean a… a social conflict?
[Nazario]: A social conflict where all the people would rise up against Volkswagen and could perhaps even end up being burned or thrown out of the… the country.
[Victoria]: And that explanation makes sense because the company had already been involved in an environmental scandal a few years earlier: Dieselgate. In 2015 it was revealed that Volkswagen had installed software on its cars to simulate cleaner emissions when they were tested by regulators in the US, but, in reality, the cars were polluting at higher levels than the United States allowed.
Although the revelations about that fraud had happened in 2015, the consequences were still ongoing in 2018. In May of that year, when the neighbors were just beginning to notice the cannons, the former CEO of Volkswagen was accused of fraud and conspiracy in the United States in connection with the so-called “Dieselgate”. And the lawsuits against the company continued to pile up, with billions of dollars in losses.
Apparently, it wasn’t the scientific arguments, nor the farmers’ demands what made them change their minds.
Trying to mess with environmental laws was easy for Volkswagen, just put some software in their cars and that’s it. Messing with nature, well, that’s more complicated.
I was in San Lorenzo Almecatla and San Francisco Ocotlán in the summer of 2019, a year after the whole conflict with the Volkswagen, and the people I spoke to told me that the harvest was going much better that year.
[Nazario]: Well, apparently they’re doing well, they’re doing very well right now. So far we have a very good… good progress in our crops. They’re doing well.
[Victoria]: You still don’t know how many tons it’s going to be?
[Nazario]: No, we still don’t know how… how it’s going to go, right? Let’s hope it keeps raining because soon the jilotear is going to start soon, and we need the water.
[Victoria]: Jilotear, which is when the corn cobs start coming out. Estela told me something else too…
[Estela]: There isn’t a single dead bird. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there aren’t any dead birds.
[Victoria]: And, of course, you don’t hear the cannons anymore.
[Daniel]: Victoria Estrada is an editor at Radio Ambulante. She lives in Xalapa, Veracruz.
This story was edited by Camila Segura and by me. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano. Emiliano Rodríguez Mega and Andrea López Cruzado did the fact checking.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Lisette Arévalo, Jorge Caraballo, Miranda Mazariegos, Patrick Moseley, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa y Luis Fernando Vargas. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios and is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO. We have another podcast: a news podcast that comes out every Friday. It’s called El hilo. Look for it at elhilo.audio.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thank you for listening.